New ‘Smart Skin’ Could Make Prosthetics More Real

Many robots and prosthetic limbs have been created, but they’re artificial and don’t have any other senses that humans have, they cannot sense their environment.  Many research groups around the world have been developing bionic arms and legs that could help patients replace lost limbs.  Scientists are looking for ways to connect these bionic limbs to the human nervous system, which could restore patients’ sense of touch as well.  A new prosthetic skin has been developed that is warm and elastic like real skin and is packed with many different kinds of sensors.


During experiments, when researchers placed the ‘electronic skin’ onto a prosthetic hand, they found that the skin could survive complex operations, such as shaking hands, tapping keyboards, grasping baseballs, holding hot or cold drinks, touching dry or wet diapers, and touching other people.  The new skin uses sensors made of silicon ribbons that have a wavy, snake-like shape.  This shape lets the sensors withstand more strain such as stretching without breaking.  It also has humidity sensors, heaters and stretchable multi-electrode arrays for nerve stimulation.  Researchers also had the prosthetic hand feel various diapers and it turned out, the skin was able to distinguish between wet and dry diapers.


The scientists included heating devices throughout the prosthetic skin that could make it feel at least as warm as a person’s body temperature.  One problem with prior attempts to make smart prosthetics was that the sensors that were used were rigid, or semiflexible at best.  This meant they could only stretch a certain amount before snapping, thus limiting the range of measurements they could make.  Human skin is elastic, soft, and warm said co-author Dae-Hyeong Kim, a biomedical engineer at Seoul National University in South Korea.

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There are still safety concerns about this device, such as the possibility that fractured electrodes could enter the bloodstream and cause damage.  In the future, the scientists hope to conduct more trials of their device.

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